American Exceptionalism or the Trump Aberration? Race and Class in American Politics

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The rise of Trump and the lack of development of a major political party that represents the interests of the working class in the United States has led many to ask if there is something peculiar about American society. Goldfield and Melcher argue that the question, and its answer, are rooted in the organization of southern workers and a united front against white supremacy.

A Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting in Arkansas, 1937. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)

As the liberal anti-establishment iconoclast Gore Vidal once quipped, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings.” W. E. B. Du Bois put it similarly when he made his case for not voting in the 1956 presidential election: “There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”

The United States, unlike all other economically developed capitalist countries, is exceptional for its lack of a major political party that (ostensibly) represents the interests of the working class. This American peculiarity — lauded by the Right and lamented by the Left — has been a major source of debate since the 19th century. The question, “Why no socialism in the U.S.?,” is ever recurrent, and countless answers have been proposed. Americans are said to be more individualistic, American society is said to have greater social mobility, early white manhood suffrage is said to have co-opted more radical alternatives, and a lack of feudalism is said to have thwarted the Left from the beginning. In 1920, William Z. Foster, an important left-wing labor leader and future leader of the Communist Party USA, argued that the major culprit was that the American labor movement was led by particularly backward union heads and that American radicals were unwilling to work within the largest labor organizations. The list goes on.

We, however, concur with Du Bois, who argued in his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, that the question of “Why no socialism in the U.S.?” really reduces to “Why no liberalism in the South?” This is because the South, as the original anchor of white supremacy, made national radical alternatives impossible. Following Du Bois, we argue that to the degree the United States has proven exceptional, it is that the organization of southern workers and the winning of white workers to the fight against white supremacy are the key to the development of a radical working class movement. Contrary to standard interpretations of U.S. history, we argue that race and the struggle against white supremacy have been central to every movement for change and are central components of every important turning point in U.S. history.

To put this in perspective, it is helpful to present what we see as the contours of the present political situation.

The Current Moment

The situation in the United States is dire, but not in the way that most liberals fear. For the second time in less than two decades we are experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Millions face unemployment, lack of food, eviction, and loss of health care. The worldwide pandemic has accelerated and deepened the recession, further exposing the deep-rooted, long-standing inequalities of capitalist societies. The richest continue to syphon off the wealth of society, while those at the bottom — in the U.S., disproportionately people of color and women — face the harshest of circumstances. Those who haven’t lost their jobs are overworked and forced to work in unsafe conditions — especially frontline workers making and delivering food, those in food production, groceries, delivery, and logistics. At the extreme end are those in meat processing, who are getting infected at alarmingly high rates and whose employers show little concern for their survival and health. The health care system, employing over 20 million workers, faces both extremes: overwork, lack of safety, and layoffs of those in areas where the population has postponed treatment for non-Covid procedures for fear of infection.

On the other side of the equation, we have seen two separate, ultimately related types of protests. The first is by workers on the front line, rightfully concerned about their safety, a seeming continuation of protests that have been building in the past several years among threatened public-sector employees (e.g., the 2014 protests in Madison, Wisconsin, and the red state teacher strikes, all a response to neoliberal cutbacks taking place everywhere, but most extreme in Republican-dominated states). The new protests have multiplied among front line workers, especially those in food production, grocery stores, and logistics/warehouse workers concerned about both speedup and safety, highlighting for the rest of us how essential they are for our survival.

The other stream has been the Black Lives Matter protests, whose extent, perhaps in the tens of millions with interracial participants in thousands of places, clearly underreported in size and scope by the national media. In one sense they are a continuation of the 2014 protests which started in Ferguson, Missouri, with the police shooting of Michael Brown. The extent of the protests, however, triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — in some respects no different than numerous other executions of Black civilians — surprised everyone. In Michigan, for instance, the protests took place in hundreds of places around the state, including in all-white areas of northern Michigan. Even in the reputedly racist Macomb County Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights — referred to even by many residents as “Sterling Whites” — protests occurred with thousands of mostly white BLM supporters occupying the downtown area.

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Both these arenas, while inspiring to many of us, involving many previously unpoliticized layers of the population, have been relatively episodic and inchoate, only partially organized with little left leadership.

The response of capitalists to the labor organizing has been predictable: harsh and unsympathetic, with the quick firing of leaders and activists, barely covered in the mainstream press. The response of many corporations to the BLM protests has been to attempt to co-opt the movement by alleging support and giving in quickly to symbolic demands yet avoiding underlying structural issues. Portions of the corporate world have also given tacit support to the inspiring protests and job actions of professional athletes, some even expressing support for the blacklisted football player Colin Kaepernick.

Which takes us to the Trump administration. While Trump’s racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and homophobic rhetoric and policies have reached new heights, as we have argued in various other venues, they are but a continuation of attempts by both Republicans and Democrats to encourage and appeal to the most backward, racist sentiments of whites — a strategy which Goldfield traces in his Color of Politics and The Southern Key. What makes Trump unique, rather, is his open encouragement and assistance to the rapid growth of violent fascist groups, which directly threaten those involved in mass mobilizations, union drives, and the left generally.

Trump has had the support of many capitalists thanks to his massive tax cuts for the rich and his aggressive deregulation policies. Yet, in contrast to some corporations, which have tried to express at least a superficial appearance of sympathy to the Black Lives Matter message, Trump has not only verbally attacked protesters as terrorists, but used federal troops to attack clearly peaceful demonstrators. In the same way he has attacked mostly Democratic big-city mayors, who generally provide a buffer for elites. Meanwhile, the economic recovery has been worsened by his total incompetence in handling the pandemic (even compared to much publicized responses in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Iceland, and New Zealand). Electorally, it will most likely cost him the support of many older white voters, who may have supported him in 2016, but now rightfully feel more vulnerable and betrayed.

It seems now that large numbers of capitalists are getting fed up with him. This appears to be reflected not only in the increased criticisms of many former government and military officials, but also in the announcements of many former top Republican officials that they will be actively supporting Joe Biden (most recently including anti-union former Michigan governor Rick Snyder and former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge). This is also reflected in the enormous fundraising disparity in recent months between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Trump’s terrifying rhetoric, threats, and presumed suppression of nonwhite voters (particularly those in the South) notwithstanding, it now appears likely that he will be swept out of office with Republicans overwhelmingly losing the House of Representatives and most likely losing the Senate.

Biden, in contrast, promises bipartisanship and civility, no dramatic plans for fighting racial oppression and police brutality, no large-scale infrastructure advances, no less ending the death penalty, rebuilding the inner cities, massive investments in education, or taking dramatic environmental actions. Like Obama, he will likely appoint many neoliberals and Wall Street investors to key economic positions. Something for all of us to look forward to. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Democratic Party is trying to terrify the rest of us by suggesting the supposed democracy of the country is at stake and that we need to fight for a return to “normal.”

This normal, of course, leaves little for the vast majority of the population, especially the prospects for many of the country’s youth. A radicalization of these youth of all races, genders, and sexual orientations seems to be taking place, as reflected in both the BLM protests, but also in numerous public opinion polls about the attractiveness of socialism, however defined, and the continued election of left-leaning Democratic politicians, often against liberal incumbents.

Those left groups seeing themselves as anti-capitalist and socialist, even revolutionary, are small and fragmented, and they so far have little influence in any of the mass movements or labor-organizing efforts. The biggest left-wing group, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has grown immensely, most dramatically as a result of its involvement in the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, now consisting of more than 70,000 members. Though it has members involved in union organizing and BLM, its largest focal point of activity has been attempts to reform the Democratic Party. It is unclear the degree to which the organization as a whole, or even significant segments of it, is willing to join the nascent labor organizing and mass protests.

Even though labor-based parties (as well as unions) in other economically developed countries have been battered and weakened in recent years, their remnants are still available to participate in and mobilize for contemporary protests. So, the question remains: Why has the United States, not merely today, but historically, been so different?

Race, Class, and the American “Exception”

Since the 19th century, socialists have recognized that, despite periodic massive labor upsurges and vibrant social movements — some even having insurrectionary aspects — U.S. workers have never been able to develop, and certainly never able to sustain, a working class party with mass support. Unlike every other economically developed capitalist country (we avoid the term “advanced”), the United States has never had a large, electorally significant, labor, social-democratic, socialist, or communist party.

Conservatives and many liberals have celebrated this feature, lauding “American exceptionalism,” positing the country as the greatest and freest of all, ignoring the horrors of U.S. capitalism for the majority of its poor, its workers, its nonwhite populations, its lack of social support and medical care, its epidemic of opioid use and suicide, its population’s low longevity, and its prisons and inner cities. This, without even mentioning support for murderous regimes abroad, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, from the Shah of Iran, to Pinochet’s Chile, to the Saudi dictatorship today, all supported by both Democrats and Republicans with only minor differences.

The questions for socialists, of course, have stemmed from opposite premises. The German economist Werner Sombart famously posed the question explicitly in his ”Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?,” a topic addressed by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, among many others. Ironically, the term “American exceptionalism,” embraced by many conservatives, originates with Joseph Stalin, as an epithet hurled at the Right Opposition in the U.S. Communist Party led by Jay Lovestone in 1928. The Lovestone group was accused of not accepting that possibilities for socialism existed in the United States, that it was an “exception” to Marxist analysis.

Du Bois claimed — at least until the 1930s — that there was not a single labor movement in the United States: there were two, one white and one Black. The white labor movement strove to monopolize the top of the division of labor, reserving desirable occupations and even entire industries for themselves, while tactically limiting competition or wholly excluding nonwhites who may undercut the prevailing wages as a result of their impoverishment and only partial freedom in the postbellum South. The Black labor movement, on the other hand, sought to break these exclusionary bonds by pursuing social, political, and economic equality with whites. Crucially for Du Bois, this is a zero-sum game: a victory for one labor movement means a loss for the other. 

While there is some partial truth here, Du Bois tended to underemphasize — even deny the existence of — various large-scale interracial class-based movements in the U.S., as Melcher has pointed out elsewhere. The labor movement in the United States has suffered a schizophrenic existence, at times engaging in solidaristic interracial activity, at others largely defending the jobs and gains of majority-white male workers, undermining the basis for joint gains and broad class struggles. The key to understanding American political development is in analyzing how these interracial movements ultimately dissipated by failing to fully challenge white supremacy.

Workers confront each other in the labor market neither as atomized individuals, nor as an undifferentiated proletariat with identical propensities to collectively challenge the boss’s rule. Rather, workers confront each other in the labor market as racialized entities whose individual material interests appear at times to be furthered along with their socially constructed race. Hence the “exceptionalism” of the American labor movement.

Most important to understanding current American class and racial politics is the ultimate fragmentation of the inspiring class solidaristic struggles of Black and white workers during the 1930s and 1940s. Briefly united in the massive unionization drives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) — whose interracial impetus came primarily from militants associated with the Communist Party USA — Black and white workers came together fighting for common interests. While this interracial upsurge was successful in much of the North, the CIO was only partially successful in organizing an otherwise militant southern workforce. In some of the successful areas, most notably steel, the unions soon degenerated into organizations that capitulated to white supremacy.

This failure in the South is attributable to three primary causes. First, the right-wing leadership of the CIO — the forefathers of the leadership of the contemporary labor movement — refused to seriously confront white supremacy in the South, squandering golden opportunities to organize Black workers in a number of large southern industries. Second, the left-wing of the labor movement — which had been the major goad behind interracial class unity in the first place — liquidated itself at the behest of the Soviet Union, which demanded labor peace during WWII, then almost total inactivity during the Cold War. Third, the postwar red scare — including the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act — dealt a crippling blow.

With the Communist Left self-liquidated and/or hounded by the state, and the right-wing of the labor movement metastasizing into the labor bureaucracy of today, the fragile interracial class-based movement of the 1930s and 1940s fractured, eventually coming to more closely resemble Du Bois’s “two labor movements.” The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was race-based (rather than class-based) from the start, constrained as it was from a lack of meaningful support from much of the AFL-CIO. Almost inexorably, these constraints laid the ground for the strength of the racist “white backlash.”

Massive resistance to the civil rights struggle in the South began shortly after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. As with previous racist movements in the South, it was led and organized by economic and political white elites, starting in the Mississippi Delta, majority–African American cotton plantation areas. For a variety of reasons, however, it also drew support from working-class and poor whites. The vehicle for massive resistance was the White Citizens’ Council. With little resistance from organized labor, opposition was effectively crushed. Despite the White Citizens’ Council’s rhetoric of eschewing violence, terror was widespread, with the KKK making open raids on Black communities throughout the South, injuring and killing many. In Birmingham, Klansmen castrated a Black handyman as part of a ceremony. In Camden, South Carolina, they flogged a white schoolteacher who had supported desegregation. In Gaffney, South Carolina, they dynamited the home of a white physician. Bombed houses and burning crosses were there for all who deviated from the racial order; Blacks were beaten for no reason at all. Murders that went unpunished were ubiquitous, the most notorious case being that of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, beaten, and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Economic repression was even more widespread: for those who challenged white supremacy, being fired or denied credit, loans, and mortgages was not uncommon.

The Republican Party set out to win racist whites in the South in order to expand its base beginning perhaps as early as 1957. This approach was pushed strongly in 1961 by Barry Goldwater, head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 1962 elections. Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign was a barely veiled attempt to appeal to racial hatred. His all-white rallies, especially in the South, “made it possible for . . . unapologetic white supremacists to hold great carnivals of white supremacy,” as Richard Rovere put it. Parallel to Goldwater and the Republican’s strategy were the 1964 and 1968 racist populist campaigns of Alabama governor George Wallace. While Wallace had tremendous support among whites in the South, in the 1964 Democratic presidential primaries he got 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, and 43 percent in Maryland, including a majority of the white vote in the latter. Democrats and Republicans both took notice. Nixon in 1968 attempted to appropriate the racist Wallace message in more veiled forms. Wallace, running on the racist platform of his American Independence Party, seemed, according to polls, to at times have strong support across the country. Yet by election time, his support had evaporated, except in the South, where his votes doubled those of the 1948 Dixiecrats.

Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips, in his pathbreaking 1970 book The New Republican Majority, laid out the strategy for Nixon and future Republicans to win the racist white vote from Democrats. This strategy was faithfully followed by Nixon in 1972 and by future Republican candidates. Ronald Reagan campaigned against Black crime, “welfare queens,” and “forced busing,” even kicking off his 1984 reelection campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 kidnapping and murder of three civil rights martyrs, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. Ever since, the GOP message and strategy have been consistent — from George H. W. Bush’s 1988 racist Willie Horton ad (the senior Bush being currently extolled as the humanitarian Republican alternative to Donald Trump), tying the case of a Black rapist to Democratic presidential candidate Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis; to North Carolina senator Jesse Helms’s anti-affirmative action ads; to the 1990 Louisiana Republican senatorial campaign of KKK and Nazi leader David Duke; to the 2016 presidential election of the racist, xenophobic Donald Trump.

Democrats, of course, were themselves not blameless, although their strategy was more complex given their need to maintain minority support. Yet the signs were there as well, from presidential candidate Jimmy Carter’s calls for racial purity, to the Chicago Democratic machine’s racist attacks on 1983 Black mayoral candidate Harold Washington. President William Clinton’s campaign and presidency reached new lows, from his 1992 attacks on Sister Soulja to his ordering, as governor of Arkansas, the execution of a Black, mentally impaired, death row prisoner. His support for the gutting of welfare programs, and his successful push for an omnibus crime bill whose draconian penalties fell disproportionately on Black youth, hardly distinguished his policies from the explicitly racist ones of the Republicans.

With all this in mind, it is hard to interpret the Trump presidency as an aberration. We do not live in “exceptional” times — rather, we inhabit what is perhaps the logical outcome of a political-economic system that has never valued Black lives beyond their capacity to labor, holding a low regard for labor in general. Our only hope, as it always has been, is in overcoming and eliminating white supremacy as a racially united working class. The Left’s role, as it was in the 1930s and 1940s, is likely to be decisive.